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Relationships Require Us to Change, But Not To Become One

https://unsplash.com/s/photos/couple?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText couple holding hands

“Don’t eat so fast.”

“Stop trying to distract him when he is upset. You need to talk about his feelings.” (about a shared child)

“Remember to not interrupt people.” (when entering a party)

“Why are you watching that tv show? It is so vile.”

“It hurts my feelings when you don’t go to bed at the same time as me.”

“Is that what you are going to wear?”

“I hate how you cut the vegetables all different sizes.”

 

Should We Change For Someone?

Sometimes folks who have never been in a successful long-term relationship will declare that they won’t change for anyone, and that we shouldn’t ask people to change for us. That is complete silliness, as indeed, a successful relationship requires massive amounts of change. At the very heart of all relating is noticing the needs of the other and negotiating a back and forth that sufficiently meets each persons’ needs enough to maintain an interest in the connection.

Having said that, in some relationships the expectation is that all differences be obliterated; that sameness is necessary to maintain unruffled feathers. In these relationships, if something your partner does displeases or distresses you in any way, they might well be expected to change. In these relationships, difference and independence are not valued; sameness is the name of the game.

Points of Connectivity

The nature and level of intimacy desired in any given relationship determines the number of points of connectivity required to create an enjoyable closeness. With close friends for instance, we likely have many places of connectivity. This likely includes some core values and beliefs we share in common, some activities we both enjoy, some common interests for conversation, and aspects of our personality that are sufficiently similar or complimentary. 

But even with our closets friends, we have huge areas of divergence. Despite how much we love them we may have whole topics we have to avoid discussing, and things about them that drive us crazy but that we choose not to address with them because we can keep those aspects of each other sufficiently compartmentalized. Even with some of our closest friends we might balk at the idea of ever having to live with them, or co-parent with them or sometimes even vacation with them, because those activities require so many more points of connectivity.

To partner with someone is to intertwine our lives with them at so many touch points. Successful partnership includes a vast number of points of connectivity. Some of those connections are easy to come by, and are the very reasons we were originally drawn to each other and ultimately fell in love. While it can look very different across couples, like with our good friends, we must share many values and beliefs about the world, relationships, ourselves, and sometimes parenting. We likely enjoy a solid handful of similar activities, have restaurants and vacation spots we both like, and similar hopes for the shape of our lives as per work and location and children and retirement.

For a Successful Relationship, We Will Have to Change

Regardless of how many ways we connect, there will also be many many places of divergence and difference. Some of those differences will bump up against each others needs. There will be many many aspects of who and how we are that our partners will ask us to consider differently. 

Those are all examples of changes that are totally reasonable and expected for a loved one to ask of us. It may hurt, be confusing, prove difficult to alter, require some negotiations, but ultimately, are legitimate asks if our goal is loving connection.

There are many ways our relationships will challenge us to grow and change, in general, and very specific ways. Having said that, sometimes folks can take the expectations for change way way way too far.

Attachment Matters, but So Does Separation

There is a parenting approach referred to as Attachment Parenting (not to be confused with Attachment Theory which is a foundational developmental theory that forms the basis for many relational psychotherapies). I always giggle a bit when people talk about attachment parenting because although it addresses some truths, namely that children develop in the context of safe emotional attachment, and that the capacity to safety attach to others in a foundation for good and healthy emotional living, if fails to address the flip side of the coin; children require safe means of separation to sufficiently develop and the capacity to be separate is a foundation for good and healthy emotional living.

Unsuccessfully Separate Adults are Crazy Controlling Partners

I introduced this post with a handful of ways partners can try to control each other. People don’t try to control their partners because they are cruel, or even neccessarily particularly dominating. It is an attempt to eliminate the space between them. It is an expression of anxiety about whether or not attachment will be available, and what might occur in the separate spaces that prevents future connection. The problems that ensue depend on the attachment styles and needs of our partner, but it always spells bad news.

If our partner is similarly insecure in their attachment, and therefor unable to tolerate the experience of separateness, we will become an enmeshed tangle of oneness. When someone asks either of us a question we will respond with “we” responses.

“What are you doing this summer”?

“We are going to take it easy”.

 

“How have you been doing”?

“We have had so much going on lately”.

 

“How is your son doing in school”?

“We think he is doing a better job making friends this year”.

 

This couple rarely does activities separately, which means their interests and friends get reduced to the few they share in common. This couple may fight a lot or very little but the goal is to eliminate differences of opinion, which ultimately makes the world of life and thought and emotionality very small. It is threatening for either to go outside the small world to learn and experience new things as it risks discovering things that are hard to share.

If our partner has the capacity for separateness, they will feel controlled and suffocated by the relentless, anxious efforts to reduce the space/difference between us. They will protest our efforts to require that we think/feel/believe/respond the same as them. We will hear these protests as rejections of us, rather than simply the rejection of sameness.

If our partner uses separateness to avoid attachment, then we are likely both in a lot of pain. Just as the capacity to attach to others is seriously compromised if it does not include a capacity for separateness, when separateness is a defense against connection, it is a hollow achievement. 

Children Learn No Before Yes

Any parent knows that one of the first, and certainly one of the favorite words kids learn is “no”. Kid declare “no” with glee and delight, with rage and aggression, with certainty and seriousness. Declaring “no” is when and how a child determines who they are and aren't, what they do an do not want, and how they do and do not feel. To have a “good” kid who does not declare “no” on a regular basis is to have a passive, people-pleasing child who is going to be completely dominated by society and everyone they are in a relationship with. As much as some of us look at our stubborn, demanding child with a bit of horror, their clarity and insurance on stating what they do and do not want should help settle our souls that our children are going to be okay as adults. They will have the capacity to direct the lives they want, rather than simply follow the lead or whims of the person they love.

If We Have Lost Our Way

If we have lost our way, and find ourselves needing to be joined at the hip with our partners, the good news is that the work we need to do to heal ourselves is also the work which will radically improve our relationship. The main tool we will need for the work is courage. The reason people try to obliterate the space between themselves and their partners is fear, or more accurately terror. 

I will write another post on how we come to be scared by difference and separateness in another (hint: early childhood parent/child relationships…read up on Attachment Theory). But regardless of how we came to fear difference and space, the work is still the same; we need to take responsibility for that fear rather than blaming our partners for the separateness we feel from them.

 

Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the  Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.

If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practicematch you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on needs and issues as well as personality and style. Request an Appointment Today.

For more or related topics in blog and video blog, follow the links below:

5 Reasons to Treat Dating Like and Internship

8 Things You Have to Remember When you Fight with a Partner

Love is Lovely but Hate Gives Love its Teeth

 

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Author
Full Living Founder and Director Karen L. Smith MSS, LCSW Karen L. Smith MSS LCSW Karen is the founder and director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which provides thoughtful matches for clients seeking therapists in the Philadelphia Area. She provides analytically oriented psychotherapy, and offers education for other therapists seeking to deepen and enriching their work with object relation concepts.

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